Community wins back 'drug corner'


Three months ago, Fayette and Mount streets was known as a "drug corner." As in so many other drug-plagued areas, dealers and sellers did business in the open -- even midday, with lookouts keeping watch for police.

Residents have worked for several months to rid the corner of that seedy image. They asked the dealers to leave and using the 1991 nuisance abatement law, they obtained court orders to seal two houses where drugs were sold.

Now, the Franklin Square Community Garden brings life to the corner where drugs once brought the specter of death.

Residents wielding rakes and shovels tilled the soil and planted trees in what they hope will be a drug-free oasis.

"This is the beginning of a positive vision for children in the community," Joyce Smith, president of the Franklin Square Community Association, said as she surveyed the small garden.

Michael Artis, who has lived in the area for 15 years, said many residents once were too intimidated to take any action against the dealers, whose numbers had multiplied over two years before the community took a stand against them.

"People got tired," said Mr. Artis, taking a break from raking soil in the new garden. "It was just a matter of recruiting more and more people. The drug dealers got the message. They know we're tired of it."

They got in touch with the Community Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal advice to the city's neighborhood organizations.

Together, they used the nuisance abatement law, which allows community associations or prosecutors to take civil action against properties that are used to sell illegal narcotics.

The law also provides for expedited proceedings in District Court and gives judges broad power to issue orders to property owners. Under the law, the judges can order yards to be cleaned, mandate who can and can't live at troublesome properties and even order the demolition of houses.

The goal of the Franklin Square residents was to keep dozens of young men from walking and standing along the 1700 block of Fayette from morning into the night.

Some of the men carried large sticks, that could be used as weapons. Motorists pulled up to the dealers and purchased drugs.

Police had difficulty making arrests because lookouts alerted the dealers whenever they saw police cruisers approaching.

Community residents pinpointed two homes that were used as the base for drug dealing. One was a vacant house in the middle of the block, another was a rental property on the drug corner.

Both houses were boarded. Afterward, one of the houses was razed after a car crashed into it causing so much structural damage that housing inspectors condemned it.

The community garden was planted on the land left bare when the house, in the 1700 block of W. Fayette St., was torn down.

Two white pines and a dogwood now grow there, and next spring, tulips and daffodils will sprout from the soil. The plants and the railroad ties that frame the garden were supplied by the city.

Myrtle Summers went door-to-door asking residents to confront the drug problem. She is a worker at Echo House, a community outreach organization at 1700 W. Fayette St.

"When I look at that block and compare it to what it was like, it is on its way back," Ms. Summers said.

Organizers of the anti-drug effort believe it can be effective in other areas of the city.

"We hope this is the beginning of a movement, and that communities all over the city are going to learn they can do this," said Denise Duval, a lawyer at the Community Law Center, which also has used the nuisance abatement law to clean up the 1400 block of Division St.

Franklin Square residents say many of the drug dealers have been driven away, but some remain. They say their job will not be finished until all the dealers are gone.

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